As the A-Rod Turns
I wrote a two-part piece on Alex Rodriguez last year when he was supposedly washed up, struggling, could not hit a thing. What a difference a year makes. Now A-Rod is rewriting the American League record book and is apparently a different person. I'm reading about how A-Rod is carrying the Yankees and how his Hall of Fame talent is allowing him to hit home runs at a blistering pace. Will he hit 80? 200 RBI? It's just hard to believe this whirlwind from 2005 MVP, to worthless in 2006, and back to mega-star in 2007. A-Rod is good; he's always been good and he will be good for a long time.
The point of last year's comparison was to point out that his swing was not quite right. It is not hard to figure out that he is back on track this year, but how much of a physical difference could there really be? Honestly, I was not expecting much and I ended up surprised at how big of an impact a few small changes can make.
My first search for some insight into what mechanical changes were being addressed turned up a simple comment that A-Rod's mechanics were "firmer" and that new hitting coach Kevin Long had helped right the ship that is A-Rod's leg kick. According to a recent NY Times article, Long believed that a lower leg kick and faster hip rotation would help A-Rod quicken up his swing. After looking at the upcoming side-by-side that I will show, I have to extend a pat on the back to Mr. Long. Nicely done and way to earn your welcome to the Bronx!
First, I want to provide the full comparison. I am going to focus primarily the first half, or the loading portion, of the swing but it's only fair to show the full clip:
The 2006 version is on the left and 2007 He-Man is on the right. The pitch location is slightly different because the 2007 shot is much lower, but I chose this comparison because of the similar camera angles and pitch types - 91 and 92 MPH fastballs, respectively. On top of that, my contention last year was that A-Rod's actions during the loading or preparatory phase of his swing were drastically influencing results, and I feel the same way now. So because the pitch type and speed is the same, it stands that A-Rod's timing should be very similar, and the near identical camera angle makes for more realistic comparisons.
Now this is the portion I would like to focus on:
This loading phase shows A-Rod's leg kick and shift into footplant. Clearly, A-Rod's leg kick is more subdued, but this is just a surface observation in my opinion. If the only change was the height of the leg kick, I am not so sure we would be witnessing this freakish home run display. I believe the real area of improvement is what is happening in the center of the body with the hips and how they move as A-Rod prepares to unload. His hips are now carrying more of his weight into footplant, much like in his MVP season of 2005 and his old "Texas" swing (remember, one of Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo's five keys is weight shift and transfer).
A 1995 study by Welch, et al. measured biomechanical aspects of the swing and they found that professional hitters landed on their front (stride) foot with 123% of their body weight. A quick turn to golf also shows the different in force distribution between the feet during the swing among amateurs versus professionals. Here is a photo from a recent Golf Digest. Why is this important? It is my basic contention that A-Rod very literally "stayed back" too much in 2006. The research shows that high level swingers have some kind of movement to establish weight against the front leg.
Now most of you that have played organized baseball have heard the coaching cue "stay back" barked endlessly at hitters. It has its value in the correct context, but can be dangerous if taken too literally, and it looks like A-Rod is a prime example. A good weight shift to the front foot is essential and does not come at the expense of staying back. This image is extracted from the comparison I used last year to show how A-Rod was staying back equally but still shifting forward more effectively in 2005 compared to 2006:
If the weight literally stays back on the back leg during the stride, then the hips are allowed to fly open and can not rotate as efficiently. I suppose this is what Long was referring to when he mentioned that A-Rod could rotate his hips faster. To go with golf again, a student in my golf class broke off a nasty slice despite a very strong grip and a closed club face. As he unloaded from the top of his swing, however, he failed to establish his weight on the front leg, which allowed his front shoulder to peel open. This forced the club around the ball (out to in) and a slice was born. A better weight shift, as seen in the golf photo linked above, would allow this individual to rotate the back side through the ball and square up the club face. So there is your golf tip of the day from a high-teens handicapper (I can't putt).
Getting back to A-Rod, I did some quick measurement in order to quantify the change in movement. From the start of the clip to footplant, I measured the distance traveled by the front hip and A-Rod is now shifting 12 more units (from +16 to +28):
I pointed out last year how keeping too much weight back cost A-Rod some of his prodigious opposite-field power and guess what A-Rod is doing thus far? That's right - he is launching homers to all parts of the field. A-Rod is again an equal opportunity home run hitter (perhaps a public relations effort to please fans in all areas of the bleacher seats?).
What I would like to ask A-Rod is if he specifically changed his setup in order to trigger these adjustments. For example, notice how A-Rod's shoulders are tilted more in 2007 and his head appears more centered between his feet:
This is something a player can change before even initiating the swing and it can assist an effortless weight shift that can transform the swing. I've seen it in person working with different players, and this is also what I would have recommended for Marcus Giles last year.
Lastly, I want to touch on the overall position A-Rod reaches at footplant. He is clearly in a more athletic position, which should allow him more versatility in handling various pitch types. I'm laying off the measurement of his head position (it's lower) because the pitch is lower, but A-Rod's renewed shift is going to allow him to rely on his body to create bat speed early in the swing.
In the kinetic link and according to the principle of summation, one segment speeds up when its preceding segments slows or stops, so now A-Rod's hands can follow along for a longer period of time because his rotation is more efficient in delivering the bat to the ball. This allows a later release of the bat head which not only affords a way to generate more bat speed with the larger segments, but also prevents him from committing his hands too early on off-speed pitches. What this all adds up to is obviously a record-breaking April.
A-Rod himself said, "I'm just trying to keep it simple," and this is really all a hitter wants to do. Thinking about all of those mechanical things is too overwhelming when you are preparing for a 95 MPH fastball while also trying to foul off that two-strike slider. It appears that Long has found some nice cues that allow A-Rod to execute his swing without having to think it. He just feels it, and what a feeling it must be.
While I am not so sure A-Rod will top 120 HR this season, I don't feel that this is simply a hot streak. What we are seeing is a great player making great adjustments and setting himself up for a great year. Of course that means we are in for a great post-season (if the Yanks can get out of last place) and possibly a drama-filled off-season which will only add to this on-going soap opera.